Thursday, February 04, 2016

Mr. Joe Sheth (1945-1991)

[Image courtesy the Times of India]

"Be First Class."

A whole generation of boys in South Bombay's exclusive Campion School were taught by a simple, unassuming, giant of a man. He died unexpectedly, in the prime of life, twenty five years ago today, at the age of forty five.

He taught English. His love and passion not just for the subject, but for life itself, was obvious, and contagious. Every single one of us was hooked. A whole world came alive. Shakespeare was infinitely more interesting than whatever slop the TV slung up, or the Alistair Maclean and Louis L'Amour pulp fiction that was the staple of boys our age. In a short tribute to the teachers in my life for Teachers Day on this blog a couple of years ago, I wrote:
Shakespeare came alive in his classes: Julius Caesar in 8th grade; The Merchant of Venice, in 9th.  His voice still rings in my head at Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes?" or Portia's "The quality of mercy is not strain'd." Byron, Shelley, Milton and Tennyson dripped from our tongues. (I could possibly still recite "Ozymandias" from memory!) We loved Sheth wildly, deeply.

Indeed we did. "Be first class," was Mr. Sheth's constant refrain, one that we've shared, among other tributes, all afternoon in the WhatsApp group for our batch (the class of 1988, the year we graduated from Campion, after the 10th grade). Not a few of us feel that he was our own John Keating from Dead Poets' Society. Don't just aim for First Class (grades), but be first class. He called all of us to be men of excellence, of virtue.

The day of Mr. Sheth's funeral is etched in my memory, vivid, all these year later. In 1991, I was in my first year of college. I always recall this as being in 12th grade, but memory is treacherous about some things! A number of us at St. Xavier's College took the train up to the distant suburb of Andheri and joined a packed congregation (it seemed like there were a thousand folks there!) in the fan-shaped Holy Family Church in Chakala. I recall being at the very back, and following the Mass (this was three years prior to my baptism), and mumbling the responses (in Latin! I clearly recall kneeling and saying dona eis requiem at the Agnus Dei and wondering why no one else did).
The coffin was surrounded by the distraught family, and we surged out behind it after the Mass, to the graveyard outside, as the sun set, and darkness fell.
Twenty five years later -- all of us in our early forties, in a variety of fields of work, scattered across the globe, most with families and kids about the same age as we were back then -- the impression and experience of this quiet man hasn't left us. It is not just that we have fond memories of him. We certainly do. But the root of these memories lies in the fact that in the presence of this man, in the experience of his care and love for us, something about us changed. We were transformed, and for the better. Indeed, we have all, I am confident, striven to be first class, ever since.

On this twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, what a privilege and blessing it was, to offer the Holy Sacrifice for the repose of the soul of this good and faithful servant.

Thank you, Mr. Sheth. Memory eternal! 

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

A minor brush with babudom

Image courtesy Google.
It is  quite common for parishioners to give their priests small gifts for Christmas, including cheques or cash. Even the smallest parish is quite generous in this regard, from what I've gathered. While I don't expect this, I receive what comes gratefully, and in some way or another, the Lord never lets me forget the poor at this time especially.

This year, of course, I wasn't in a parish over Christmas. I have so far received a bunch of Christmas cards from back in the US, including several from my former parish. I love receiving cards, and I send out a bunch as well (I blogged about the experience of going to the central post office here a couple of weeks back). On Facebook, I instructed folks not to send any valuables or perishables -- it's just not secure over ordinary airmail.

Well, one of the cards that recently arrived contained a Walmart receipt. This very sweet, devout, elderly couple had trekked to their local Walmart and figured out a way to send me some cash via an international money order. On the accompanying note, they apologized that I would have to go to Walmart to get the cash. The generosity and large-heartedness of the people of God never ceases to move me!

Of course, there are no Walmarts in India (at least no retail stores). The receipt clearly indicated that the money would be delivered in Indian rupees. It turns out that Walmart uses a money transfer service known as Moneygram. It must be fairly popular, since there were quite a few locations where one could receive a Moneygram, including the neighborhood post office. Intrigued at how this would work, I trekked off to the local PO.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Wake up infant! Get up quickly and sign us with the Cross!

The crowd gathered for Midnight Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Name
At Midnight Mass in Bombay a few days back, we arrived early, and sat listening to the Christmas carols that preceded Mass. This Goan carol really caught my attention. Here are the words, in Konkani and then English.

Jesu Mariechea khandar nidla uskea vin ballok Jesu
Uttha balla, utth re vegim, kadd amcher khursakuru 
Soitanak sampoddlele bhav tujem martat ulo
Tum urloi zalear nidun konn tankam nivartolo? 
Padd zalle koidi gulam suttkechi vatt polletat
Tujeruch galun nodor tarnnachea disak ravtat 
The Child Jesus slept on Mary's shoulder without a worry
Wake up, infant, get up quickly, sign us with the (sign of the) Cross 
Your brothers who have been enslaved to Satan, cry out to you
If you remain asleep, who will liberate them? 
Prisoners destroyed by their imprisonment look for freedom
They cast a glance on you and yearn for the day of salvation.
One category of Christmas carols focuses on the Infant and sees the little, adorable, lovable child -- sleeping peacefully on a silent night, wrapped in swaddling clothes, the cattle lowing, the shepherds adoring.

What struck me about this one was its urgency. You can't sleep! If you sleep, who will save us? Who will liberate those enslaved by Satan? Wake up! Get about your business! The world awaits!

Much like the Christmas season -- the day after the Nativity of the adorable Infant, is the death by stoning of St. Stephen, and two days later, the massacre of the innocents -- this carol gets right to the heart of the matter: this little child has come to destroy the reign of sin, has come to despoil Satan's stronghold, and to set us free. This piece by Amy Welborn at National Review -- written, now, ten years ago?? -- is an insightful reflection on the mystery of the Christmas season, of the joy of a child born, the terror of fleeing in the night, and the mystery of the Cross.

But that setting us free also involves us being signed by the Cross! Nothing without the Cross, the true hope, the spes unica, of the Christian!

A scan of the songsheet

I recorded the Cathedral choir singing the first two verses. After that, we had to leave to go get vested.

Uttha balla! Wake up infant!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Losing one's faith -- and finding Christ?

R.E.M. - "Losing my religion"

John Janaro, author of "Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy" (highly recommended) has this beautiful blog post up: "An Open Letter to My Dear Former Students."

Read it!
Some people have left the Church. I know that. You have found that the old inspiring speeches and the charge of "Instaurare Omnia in Christo" and even a solid (but by no means complete) education have been inadequate for the complexity of the world you now live in. And the questions of life are larger than you had realized. 
I'm sorry, of course. At a college, we can only do the best we can with educating and building up a constructive environment. We teachers and administrators have our own idiosyncracies [sic] and limits. We are sinners. Please forgive us. 
But there is nothing in this world that can address the complexities and answer the questions that are not just intellectual but that constitute the depths of you as a person. Only Jesus can do that. The real Jesus: that tremendous Person who loves each of us with a wild and unpredictable love. 
Sometimes when people "lose the faith," they are actually going through a phase of life in which what they're really "losing" are their own reductionist ideas. They are finding that it's not enough to know philosophy or theology as a collection of logically connected terms. It's not enough to have ideas about God. They are finding that they cannot live life with a mere conception of God, Christ, and the Church that is devoid of mystery, relationship, and the freedom of love. 
We can become disoriented when we are stripped of our illusory images and false self-confidence. But we can also allow a space to open up within us where the Mysterious One who is beyond-all-things can really begin to speak. We can rediscover Jesus and what it means to belong to Him in the Church.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A trip to the post office ... and down memory lane!

Things have been settling down to a routine in my new surroundings enough for me to design and print my Christmas card. Vistaprint's Indian website had attractive rates and superfast delivery. Today, I took the first bunch to the central Post Office in Baroda in Raopura, figuring this would give the mail a little bit of a heads up on its trek back to the US.

Selling postage stamps is only a tiny part of what goes on at an Indian post-office. Minuscule part, actually. None of the windows actually said anything resembling "stamps." It turns out that these are sold at the "Information and Facilitation" window. The rest are for customers of the Post Office Savings Bank, Life Insurance and other such products.

"We Committed to Quality Services"
(Once. It didn't work out though ... Heh) 

Friday, December 11, 2015


Presidential hopeful Donald Trump's remarks on Muslim immigration ("a total and complete shutdown on all Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on") have sparked a firestorm. I shared my thoughts on Facebook a few days back (with a vigorous discussion ensuing in the combox).

Much to my astonishment, Catholics whose ideas I normally appreciated and valued, were supporting this proposal: no, it wasn't unconstitutional, the President has the authority to restrict the entrance of aliens (the legal term for non-citizens), and it was prudent in light of national security. Islam really only leads to violent jihad. The only good Muslim is a jihadi who kills infidels. The Qu'ran says so clearly. All Muslims therefore are potential terrorists. If it prevents only one terrorist (or potentially radicalized terrorist) from killing one American, it would be worth it.

I am not going to attempt to respond to these arguments here. Here I simply want to envision how things might look if Mr. Trump's proposal actually came to pass, that is, if the United States actually enacted legislation that barred any non-American adherent of the Islamic religion from being admitted to the country, until we "figure out what is going on" (Presumably this is not a short time period. The War on Terror is, after all, a long term war.)

Consular officials in a vast swathe of countries in Asia and Africa now no longer have any major work, since the vast majority of the populace is no longer eligible for a U.S. immigrant or nonimmigrant visa.

The Department of Homeland Security is hiring extra staff for a variety of tasks: printing up a whole set of new forms, for instance, with space for a new category: religion. New personnel are being trained to enforce removal proceedings of a vast number of people already in the United States whose admissibility has been revoked. Muslim visitors, students and businessmen currently within the U.S. have been given 30 days to leave. Universities, while lamenting the state of affairs vehemently, are not refunding foreign Muslim students for tuition and other expenses already paid. Some enterprising lawyers are putting together a class action lawsuit. Muslim Legal Permanent Residents (those with "green cards," i.e. immigrants), as well as asylees, and refugees, have been given 90 days within which to pack up their affairs and voluntarily remove themselves from the US. No exception has been made for Americans married to non-American Muslims. Those who had applied for naturalization before the day the law went into effect are permitted to continue. The rest are out of luck.

Let's look at the aviation industry. Several major airlines have stopped flying to the U.S.: Qatar, Kuwait, Gulf Air, Saudia, Garuda Indonesia, Royal Jordanian, Etihad, Emirates, PIA etc. Their crews are almost entirely Muslim. Airlines of other countries (Air India, British Airways, KLM, Malaysian Airlines, Qantas, Air Canada) are now devoting resources to ensure that no Muslims are scheduled to work on flights to the US.

Ordinarily, it is the responsibility of airlines to make sure that passengers have the necessary documents for legal admittance to their destination. An airline faces stiff fines, and has to fly the inadmissible person back at its own cost, if it makes a mistake in this area. Airlines are spending heavily to train gate agents, check-in agents, supervisors, customer service personnel, ticketing agents, etc. to properly identify Muslim travelers from countries whose citizens do not ordinarily need a visa to travel to the U.S. for short visits. Extra Customs & Border Patrol officers are being sent to key airports overseas to help airlines with this complicated task, even elsewhere. What if a Muslim Indian has a valid 10-year visitors visa issued years ago? She should be identified and barred, before she gets on the plane! In most places, airlines are setting up separate check-in counters for travelers to the United States, so that their religion can be properly identified.

It is the first day after the new U.S. law has gone into effect. Let's imagine the scene at a major airport somewhere in the world. A vast crowd is milling around the newly labeled check-in counters for the flight of a major airline to the U.S. Large signs point travelers to a "Religion Identification Area." A separate counter has been designated for U.S. citizens. Various posters are taped to pillars and kiosks everywhere, with the new U.S. policy explained: "Under U.S law, if you are not a U.S citizen, and are a member of the Muslim religion, you may not enter the United States." At the entrance to the airport is a large banner: "Please note: Muslims not allowed into US."

A harried check-in agent, flanked by a nervous supervisor, and a U.S. CBP official, talks to passengers as they approach the counter in the Religion Identification Area.

Agent: Name?
Passenger: Usman Abdul.
Agent: Religion?
Passenger (Hesitates): Muslim.
Agent: Sorry Mr. Abdul, you cannot board the flight.
Passenger: But I am going to visit my brother's family! I go every year!
Passenger: Sorry Mr. Abdul.

Agent: Name?
Passenger: Sara Suleiman, with my daughter Fatima and son Daniel.
Agent: Religion?
Passenger: Christian.
Agent: Really?
Passenger: Yes. Well, you see, I grew up Muslim, but I accepted Jesus some time ago.
(Agent looks to CBP official)
Agent: Do you have any proof?
Passenger: Umm. You know, most of my family don't know that I converted. It would be very difficult. So I didn't register anywhere. I just go to the church. Here, I can call the Pastor.
CBP Official: M'am, under the new guideliens, we need written proof of religion. Acceptable documents, when there is a doubt, are a baptism certificate, a letter from a recognized leader in an organization recognized by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. I'm afraid I cannot let you board the flight.

Agent: Name?
Passengers: Samir Nasser
Agent: Religion?
Passengers: Maronite.
Agent: (confused pause -- looks to CBP official)
CBP official (consults iPad and frowns): Christian? With that name?
Passenger: Yes! Would you like me to recite the Our Father?

Agent: Names?
Passengers: Ahmed and Reshma Khan, with sons Imran (10) and Mohammed (7)
Agent: Religion?
Passenger: I'm Muslim, she's Hindu.
Agent: She can travel. I'm afraid you cannot, sir. What religion do the children profess?

Agent: Name?
Passenger: David Coleman Headley
Agent: Oh, go right ahead sir. 

Yes. This is what will make America great again.

(Samir Nasser is actually a Maronite Archbishop. As to David Headley -- there's a tale. He's in there at the end for dramatic effect. In the envisioned scenario, as an American citizen, he wouldn't be subject to this scrutiny.) 

Friday, November 27, 2015

To Delhi via Dubai: The United Ultra Long Haul Experience

This trip report will focus on my first major flight with United Airlines. (I've flown the old Continental long distance a couple of times, on their US-India nonstops. This while CO was still with SkyTeam.)

This past Sunday, I had occasion (see post below) to need a last minute ticket to the Subcontinent. Fares in coach on SkyTeam were through the roof. I had a bunch of Avianca LifeMiles stored up (a good way to get affordable business class fares internationally). Not really expecting to find award travel availability, I went to the LifeMiles website anyway. I needed a flight late in the evening on Sunday, that would let me take the morning Masses in my parish, and give me enough time to get to Hartsfield, 90 minutes away from Athens. Flights out of Atlanta, Miami and Chicago were unavailable. Out of Boston, there was a weird connection via Geneva and Zurich, on Swiss Airlines. It looked risky: short layovers at both airports? I don't think so. United's popular (and lucrative) Newark-Delhi flight was available only a few days ahead. Air India (EWR-BOM/JFK-DEL) was unavailable, though I could have shelled out more points and flown First Class a few days later. And then, I plugged in Washington Dulles. IAD-DXB on UA, connecting to AI on to DEL, with an ~4h layover. Bingo! A few minutes later I had booked that flight, followed by a decently priced flight from Atlanta up to Dulles on Delta.

The 4+ hour layover at Dulles was more than enough to pick up my bags from the belt off the Delta flight, and hike them over to United's premier check-in counter, which was practically deserted. "This is a one way, sir? When are you returning?" I said I wasn't sure. "Well, we have to put in something for immigration." I pointed out that I had permanent residency status in India (Overseas Citizenship of India) and showed her my card. "Oh that's all I needed to know!" A few minutes later the bags were checked through to Delhi and I received the boarding pass for the first leg. I would have to go to the transfer desk in Dubai to get my Air India boarding pass. I headed out to the curb, and was picked up by a classmate from seminary. There was more than enough time for a leisurely dinner nearby.

The United lounge at C17, IAD